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Merion matters as a lesson to all

I realise that by the time you read this, the US Open Championship of 2013 may well be just a distant memory. Upwards and onwards they cry – bring on golf’s next great champion? (Don’t worry: I do realise the Open Championship has taken place since events at Merion, and quite sensational Phil Mickelson was at Muirfield.)

Nevertheless, I would like to ponder for a moment and speak about this year’s US Open, for I have fond memories of the Merion golf course, having played it many years ago prior to the US Open won there by Lee Trevino in 1971. From that moment until this day, I have loved, enjoyed and marvelled at that golf course and its surroundings.

Prior to the event I don’t think I’ve ever read so many expansive quotes as to how the course would play, who would win, how the USGA were taking a huge risk in going to a course contained in not much more than 100 acres and so on. Well, the 63s and 64s never appeared, only a few people ever broke the par of 70, so in many ways the USGA and their weird and wonderful way of thinking won the day handsomely. It just goes to show that you don’t have to make a golf course miles long in order to make it a severe test for the greatest players in the world. Narrow fairways, punishing but sensibly cut rough, small greens, little streams, nooks and crannies, and – OK – flags on occasion put in ridiculous places, brought the mighty to their knees.

Over the course of the four days there were a number of players who looked as if they would be challenging for the trophy but some hit poor shots, some had bad luck, others were overcome by the situation. But not Justin Rose. I thought the way he played the last few holes was bordering on majestic. His tee shot at the 71st and the drive and superb 4-iron, pitching into the heart of the final green, were wondrous. Thank goodness his ball stopped just in time on the last. If it had bounded through the green like Tom Watson’s approach shot did in the Open at Turnberry in 2009, things may have been very different. But Rose was home and dry, chased all the way by Phil Mickelson who, once more, served up shots of sublime quality and gauche innocence but, my word, he gives us value for money – as we saw again at our Open Championship.

I somehow doubt we’ll see another major championship like Merion for a number of years. Why? Because the future venues don’t lend themselves to that sort of course preparation. Many might say “Thank God for that” because all was not perfection. The practice area was practically in the next state and the first tee was within touching distance of the members drinking their whisky sours (or was it diet cokes?). Ah, the memories of the 10th tee at Royal County Down. To sum up, however, I think it was a successful championship, certainly and ultimately from a British point of view, and it gave a lesson regarding course preparation, length and degree of difficulty. (Granted, though, having a par-three, the 3rd, that in the prevailing wind on the final day was out of reach of a driver for most players was indeed a bit too much.)

For many years there has been a great amount of worry as to the length of golf courses and the distance the modern players hit the ball. Equipment changes have been called for and the powers that be have been criticised on many fronts for allowing the situation seemingly to slip through their fingers. Year after year, the USGA get criticised for producing a course that is too difficult. Their fear of someone ending up 25 under par is the shadow hanging over every major championship venue and committee room throughout the length and considerable breadth of the United States.

Oh, it’s happened once. Tiger Woods had a runaway victory at Pebble Beach in 2000 and I can hear them sitting round the table saying: “We don’t want that sort of thing to happen again.” Well, it hasn’t. One of the reasons this time around was that Merion had a false par. If you retain any of the old truisms of golf, par-fives start at 485 yards and par-threes end at 250 yards. At Merion there were par-fours well over 500 yards and the aforementioned par-three that could only be reached by the biggest hitters using a driver; by the shorter players not at all.

I don’t know why they didn’t bother to call the par 68 and then everyone would have been happy. Perhaps it’s about time we got rid of par. Let them all come and play and whomever does the lowest score is the winner, because it doesn’t make the damn of a difference how many under par you want to call it.

Ponder this. Since 1953, thousands – yes thousands – of people have reached the top of Mount Everest. But only a few have reached the top of the Old Man of Hoy, that weird and wonderful pinnacle of rock sticking out the Solway Firth. One is 29,000 feet high and the other just a few hundred yet, in many ways, the Old Man is a much more difficult climb. So, for golf course architects and club developers, maybe there’s a lesson to be learned. Remember that the game of golf shouldn’t be changed for the sake of a few hundred people who play it at the very highest level. Those narrow fairways, thick but uniform rough, small greens, a network of streams and a few ‘House of Horror’ pin placements won the day at Merion. Well played the USGA; well played Justin Rose. Just let the rest of us play golf as it was meant to be.

August 2013

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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